I have been a UCSC Earth Sciences Department lecturer since 1997, and have taught earth sciences classes in a variety of venues since 1978. Presently, I teach three courses regularly: ‘Elements of Field Geology’ (EART 109), ‘Senior Field Internship’ (a.k.a. Summer Field Geology: EART 188), and ‘The Natural History of Dinosaurs’ (EART 65). I sometimes also teach ‘Vertebrate Paleontology’ (EART 100), Sedimentology and Stratigraphy (EART 120), ‘Environmental Geology’ (EART 20) and GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment). I proposed and developed EART 65 and EART 100 to augment the paleontology curriculum for lower and upper division students. I am lucky to have diverse course assignments that allow for interaction with a broad range of students and implementation of a broad range of teaching strategies. A description of my current courses and instructional tactics and goals follows.
EART 65, ‘The Natural History of Dinosaurs’, was designed (in 1999) to appeal to both science and non-science majors and to give students a basic understanding of evolution, anatomy, paleoecology, functional morphology, earth system science, geologic time and the scientific method. In essence, I use dinosaurs to entice students, especially the science-phobic, to learn the language and basic principles of a variety of scientific disciplines. I do not ‘dumb-down’ the paleontology or geology, but I do go to some lengths to make this class entertaining. Fossil specimens, movie clips, music, chicken carcasses, bowling balls and bullwhips play pivotal roles in EART 65 and thus far this approach has worked well. EART 65 has been a popular course: it served about 175 students in its first year, and has filled its designated lecture hall to capacity (~280 students) in subsequent years. The downside of such a large class is student anonymity and detachment, and I try to offset this in several ways. I make discussion sections mandatory and assign each one a particular geographic and chronologic identity (e.g. Late Jurassic North America). The sections are mini-lab periods early in the quarter and research forums later, when students work in groups to study their particular Mesozoic time and place, and plan a presentation thereon. Each student also independently researches and writes a short paper on a dinosaur species or Mesozoic topic relevant to their section identity. In lecture, I encourage students to present late-breaking dinosaur research at the beginning of the period, to ask and answer questions, and to participate in demonstrations. Interactivity slows the lectures down, but student contributions have provided the most memorable moments in the course. None of these techniques completely solve the ‘big class’ problem, and they require extra work for the students and all of the instructors, but I believe they help give students a sense of class ownership.
I have had the opportunity to regularly teach the upper division Earth Sciences field courses EART 109 and EART 188 since 2000 and 2002, respectively. These classes are limited to 25-30 students, and EART 188 is the capstone course for the Earth Sciences major. EART 109 and 188 teach/test basic principles of topographic and geologic map analysis and construction, aerial photo interpretation, rock identification and interpretation, petrography, geomorphic and geologic structure analysis, stratigraphy, and geologic report writing. EART 109 is taught through informal, interactive lectures, analytical labs and nine days of work in the field. EART 188 is entirely field-based, and consists of three weeks of work in the Poleta Fold Belt of the White-Inyo Mountains. The interactive, hands-on, outdoors aspect of both field classes makes them a pleasure to teach and affords me the luxury of getting to know a number of our majors very well. Nevertheless, these are challenging courses that sometimes try students’ souls, often in the form of complex four-dimensional puzzles (e.g. the intersection of geologic structures and topography through time) encountered in physically taxing settings. Three-dimensional visualization (using animations, play-doh models, wooden blocks, etc…) is thus a focus in both classes, and recently my colleague Casey Moore and I received two CTE grants to develop computer/GIS components for EART 109 and 188 that might also help. Our hope is that digital mapping tools will enhance 3-D visualization and data analysis for most students, in addition to teaching them skills that are increasingly required of professional earth scientists. In the field I feel that my role is to give the students what they need then get out of the way, and I’m routinely impressed and often humbled by their achievements.
As I am not a good pontificator, my teaching style in every course is informal. It is important to me that my classes are academically rigorous and challenging, but also enjoyable, and that my students know they can approach and trust me. I structure classes such that final grades are based on a range of assignments, with as little emphasis as possible on tests, though the latter are a seemingly necessary evil in large classes. I’ve been slow to introduce technology such as digital mapping or interactive web pages into my classes, in part for fear of providing shortcuts to basic reasoning skills or obviating class attendance, but I’m coming around. My primary goals as an instructor are to do justice to my topics, encourage my students to excel and, frankly, to have fun.
My role in the Earth Sciences Department has changed over the years from occasional lecturer to senior lecturer and sometime senior-thesis advisor, thesis committee member, and departmental curriculum committee member. Since I get to know many Earth Sciences majors well nowadays I also write quite a few letters of recommendation, and I find this very rewarding. I ask a lot of from my students that it’s nice to be able to help them move forward. Their promise, along with my dream of convincing everyone to take at least one earth sciences course, is what keeps me going.